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Car of the Week: 1969 Fiat 500L

From the roads of Italy to the streets of Michigan, this little 1969 Fiat 500L has brought smiles wherever it has roamed.
Car of the Week 2020
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Wayne Hayward loved his little 1969 Fiat 500L so much that he couldn’t leave it behind. He just had to bring it home with him — all the way across the Atlantic Ocean.

Hayward drove the wheels off the tiny sedan while he lived and worked in Italy. He didn’t mind using a 50-year-old microcar as his daily transportation — even in the hills and snow of northern Italy. He had so much fun being squeezed behind the wheel that he brought it home to Plainwell, Mich., with the rest of his belongings.

“I’ve had it since 20017. I bought it over in Italy … and I drove it back and forth every day for about 2 ½ years. I had it repainted over there and had the seats redone over there. All the work that’s been done to it has been done by Italians [laughs].”

Hayward isn’t certain what it was that made him want a tiny, time warp car as daily transportation in a foreign nation. He says he just seemed to gravitate to the cars during his time overseas and after buying a different car for his wife from a dealer, the conversation turned to old Fiats. 

“This dealer got these periodically and would restore them. I got into a conversation with him and told him I wanted one that wasn’t restored. I wanted to do the work myself,” Hayward recalls. “He was on the lookout and actually found a couple for me. I turned down the first couple and this one had minimal rust and just a couple of spots of surface rust, so I took him up on this one. It had a makeshift, daily driver paint job when I got it. But underneath you can feel all solid, not rust whatsoever.”

Other than a modern stereo/radio and modern antenna, Hayward’s 500L is very much like it was when it left the factory.

Other than a modern stereo/radio and modern antenna, Hayward’s 500L is very much like it was when it left the factory.

In hindsight, Hayward is glad he pulled the trigger and bought his ’69 when he did. He is convinced it would have been a lot harder to get one after he got back to the States, and he feels like it’s getting a little tougher every year.

” Surprisingly, it’s getting harder and harder to get them and it's mainly because the Italians have cracked down on old cars, and they won’t release them once they hit a junk yard. But they are literally around the countryside if you have connections in Italy, and I know people from working there, and I’m able to get parts shipped.”

He is a little fuzzy on his Fiat 500L’s history. From what he can gather, he is the car’s third owner — or fourth if you include the dealer who found it and sold it to him.

“How many miles are on it? Miles? I actually couldn’t even begin to tell you, and it’s all in kilometers, too. It’s difficult to tell,” he laughs. “I do have pictures of the original titles … they won’t release the titles. The Italian government doesn’t release the titles. I know the names that were on it and I can see when it was serviced, but that’s about it.”

A look at the 499cc power plant that generates 17 hp.

A look at the 499cc power plant that generates 17 hp.

Tiny Car, Big Impression

The Fiat 500 had long since cemented its status as one of the most successful, enduring and appealing sub-compact — aka microcars — ever conceived by the time the 1969 model year rolled around. The 500 was launched in 1957 and called the Nuovo (“New”) 500 in the summer of 1957 and had some big shoes to fill as the successor to the Topolino. Moreover, the Nuovo 500 was ticketed as a challenger to the VW Beetle, which was well on its way to becoming the most popular car on the planet.

The 500 wasn’t quite as round as the Beetle, but it came in a similar package: four-seater, air-cooled rear engine; minimalistic and affordable. With only a 72-inch wheelbase and 12-inch wheels, it was even smaller than the “Little Mouse” Topolino. Driver’s had to learn to double-clutch the non-synchronized transmission, which was mated to a 13-hp two-cylinder, 479cc engine. Top speed was about 50 mph.

The "frunk" isn't the largest but gets the job done.

The "frunk" isn't the largest but gets the job done.

The early 500s only had room for two and used soft tops with plastic back windows, but 1960 saw the arrival of the 500D model, which included a tiny back seat, along with a slightly larger 499cc power plant that generated 17 hp. The tops only rolled back to the top of the rear window, which was now fixed. A station wagon model was also added in ’60, called the Giardiniera. As the 500s evolved during the ‘60s, they gained slightly nicer interiors, forward-hinging doors and larger windshields, among other things.

The “L” model was unveiled in the fall of 1968. The "L" stood for "Lusso”, or luxury, which made it the top-of-the-line 500. The interior was slightly upscale with a black steering wheel with two pairs of spokes, pleated seats, and tubular guards helped protect the bumpers on the front and back. In the drivetrain department, the 500L output was actually reduced from 21 to 18 hp to improve in fuel efficiency, putting it in the 30 mpg ballpark.

Hayward claims it will seat at least six. He's done it!

Hayward claims it will seat at least six. He's done it!

The Fiat 500 was a runaway hit in Europe, where roughly 3.5 million were sold during the car’s run from 1957-’75. However, the 500 model was not available in the U.S. after 1961. As was the case for many other microcars that came and went in ‘50s and ‘60s, American buyers just never warmed up a car that only weighed about 1,000 lbs. and could fit in a parking space only 10 feet long.

Tiny “grocery getter”

Other than a modern stereo/radio and modern antenna, Hayward’s 500L is very much like it was when it left the factory. It wears the same shade of white paint and has the same drivetrain. He had one fender replaced, but otherwise the sheet metal is all original.

“The only accessory that is on it is the radio. It was a unit under the dash because it was a daily driver. Everything else is stock stuff. The sunroof comes stock on all of them and the reason they have this roll-back roof on them is the cost was cheaper than metal, back in the day, so every one of them came with that because it was cheaper to build. It’s got a little two-cylinder 499cc engine in it that makes 18 hp; non-synchronized four-speed transmission; you really gotta know how to double-clutch! You gotta know how to do it and know how to bump the throttle to keep things going.”

“It does 45, 50 [mph] pretty good. It doesn’t like 55 and higher very much.”

See below gallery for the little Fiat in Italy

Hayward isn’t sure what the world record is for most people stuffed into a Fiat 500, but he knows at least six can fit. He had that many shoehorned in during a short stint at the Woodward Dream Cruise. 

“I had my son and my daughter and three of their friends in it,” he chuckles. “We got six in ‘er, but we didn’t go very far that way.”

From the roads of Italy to the streets of Michigan, this little Fiat has brought smiles wherever it has roamed.

From the roads of Italy to the streets of Michigan, this little Fiat has brought smiles wherever it has roamed.

Hayward insists that he never batted an eye or had any doubts about the 500’s capabilities when he drove every day in Italy. If he had to, he’d drive it every day through Michigan winters, although that’s not really in the plans.

“I drive it at least once a week,” he says. “It gets a lot of smiles. I get smiled all the time and when I get passed people are pointing fingers and people wondering what it is. It’s kind of fun to watch people’s faces and you can see them mouthing something. ‘What in the world is that?’ [laughs]

“I’ve had other minis. I had another Fiat 500 in Italy. I don’t know, I just like little mini cars. Especially this one. We can go get groceries in this one!”

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If you’ve got an old car you love, we want to hear about it. Email us at oldcars@aimmedia.com

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Worldwide Auctioneers will offer up 35 outstanding cars from 𝗧𝗵𝗲 𝗥𝗼𝗻 𝗧𝗵𝗼𝗿𝗻𝗲 𝗖𝗼𝗹𝗹𝗲𝗰𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻 at their upcoming Scottsdale Auction on January 26th.